Sustainable Education Ghana, a Cornell project team, has demonstrated how simply starting a conversation can manifest into tangible, large-scale and meaningful change — change in the form of a new all-girls school in Ghana.
SEG has united its passion and talents with the input of Voices of African Mothers — a non-governmental organization dedicated to women’s education in Africa — and the local community to design and plan the construction of the school, to be located in Sogakope, Ghana.
Claudia Nielsen ’18 and Arielle Tannin ’18, SEG’s founders, said their project team is not only striving to build a school in a region where girls have limited opportunities for education, but it is also designing the school based on three pillars of sustainability: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability.
“Sustainability goes a lot further than just changing a light bulb,” said SEG member Samuel Turer ’18. “Supporting all these different communities and providing them with the right resources in order for them to succeed and achieve their greatest goals is what’s ultimately most important.”
To that end, members of SEG explained that sustainability is rooted in an awareness of what the community actually needs and desires.
Over the past three years, the team has been working closely with Ghanaian architects, engineers, contractors and educators to bring their ambitious plan into reality.
“We went all over the country … we went to our site, we did a lot of community outreach [and] a lot of empathy fieldwork to make sure that what we’re designing is really fitting the needs of the Ghanaian people,” said Ana Moura-Cook ’19, an engineer on the design team. “We want desperately to avoid the ‘white-savior’ mentality. We don’t want to show up, and build something and then just leave — we want this to be sustainable … and [to] create something that really lasts.”
In their pursuit of social sustainability, SEG has worked with children in local Ithaca middle schools to receive honest feedback on classroom formations and different lessons and designs, according to Turer.
“What’s comfortable to them is not [necessarily] comfortable to us — and we’ve thought about that, and we’ve asked them questions,” said SEG member Brianna Hartner ’19. “What temperature is comfortable for them? What sounds are comfortable for them?”
SEG has also incorporated local input and practical considerations into its design of the school, specifically in planning for the provision of necessary amenities for an all-girls school, according to Alex Zink ’17 the leader of the design team.
“Our bathrooms need to be very well-thought-out,” Zink explained. “The idea is that there will probably be almost no men in the entire school when it’s running, except for a couple of teachers, so they’ll be using a small men’s bathroom or a co-ed handicap bathroom. Otherwise, all the bathrooms will be for women and the stalls will be big enough to have dispensers in all of them.”
In many Ghanaian communities, there still remains a social taboo against menstruation, according to Zink. As a result, many girls tend to skip school during the week of their menstruation, which in turn can lead them to fall behind in their studies compared to their male peers.
“VAM’s mission, and our mission, is basically to create a school for them, a place that’s a safe haven, where they won’t feel judged or stereotyped or discriminated against in any means, a place where they can receive education, where they can really be in the center of the spotlight,” Moura-Cook said.
To pursue environmental and economic stability, SEG planned for the implementation of new, environmentally sustainable technology, such as solar panels, according to Zink.
In doing so, the team considered the unique geographic features and cultural traditions of the region to optimize both sustainability and usability.
For instance, the team has been crafting a rooftop-rainwater collection and filtration system. SEG has also oriented the proposed buildings so that they bring in ample natural light and wind air, making the school sufficiently cool. SEG also plans primarily to use locally-sourced clay mud brick for the walls.
“Our whole goal with SEG isn’t necessarily to reinvent the wheel, but … to make what we have even better,” Turer said.
The team has completed research, created construction documents, and conducted design and structural analyses, but SEG’s work is not over just yet — VAM is working to fundraise for the construction of the school, at which point SEG will be invited to help physically build the school.
“Throughout this whole project, we keep coming back to [one question],” Nielsen said. “How will this space help make the students that we’re trying to help be the best that they can be, and be really empowered to pursue … and care about their education?”